I have already brought up the subject of Conciliarism in Old Catholic Ecclesiology and Northern Catholicism. Conciliarism was a reforming movement in the European Church from about the fourteenth century. It promoted the view that the highest authority in the Church is the Ecumenical Council and not the Pope acting outside or above the communion of the Church. This movement was a reaction against the corrupt Papacy, the schism between Avignon and Rome in particular, which caused the convening of the Council of Pisa (1409), the Council of Constance (1414–1418) and the Council of Basel (1431–1449). Thus, Conciliarism prevailed and gave rise to a whole reforming movement in the Church, especially in the Northern countries. The Papacy got its own back through the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), and Ultramontanism reached its paroxysm in 1870 with the definition of Papal infallibility.

Why an article on a subject that would seem to concern the Roman Catholic Church? The answer is simple: the Church of England at the time was still in communion with Rome as was the Church of France under Louis XIV. Anglicanism, like Gallicanism and Old Catholicism, finds its legitimacy by identifying with Conciliar ecclesiology.

The Papacy, as historians know, was extremely corrupt in the Middle Ages, and the great issue at the time was the constant dispute between the popes and the kings of Europe, especially Boniface VIII (1235-1303) and Philip the Fair of France. This dispute resulted in the bull  Unam Sanctam, which asserted papal power over both the spiritual and secular “swords” and that salvation was impossible outside the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope.

The history of the Avignon Papacy is complex, and can be studied in standard church history books or from web articles, so I won’t go into it here. Eventually, the only way to solve the conflict was to have an authority higher than the popes, so that a judgement would be possible to decide which pope should abdicate. This was Conciliarism, whose first Council (Pisa 1409) was a fiasco and only succeeded in adding a third pope! The Council of Constance (1414–1418) was more successful and brought an end to the Schism by deposing John XXIII and Benedict XIII. The third pretender to the papacy abdicated. Constance decreed that the Ecumenical Council should enjoy a higher authority to that of the Pope. As mentioned, the Papacy struck back and Conciliarism became marginalised.

Now, for the theory of Conciliarism. It comes largely from the ideas of William of Occam, and promotes a greater degree of democracy and consultation in the Church. Authority not only comes from God, but also from the people. The Church is the congregation of all the faithful, and this is the infallible Church, not the Pope, who is as fallible as anyone else. William was amazingly advanced, and advocated that Councils should include the participation of lay men and women! It was also a movement against the excesses of clericalism.

Naturally, the greatest opposition came from clericalists and the dreaded Inquisition representing the oppressive aspect of Papal power. The neo-scholastics like Thomas Cajetan worked for a reassertion of the supremacy of the Pope, whose authority as successor of St Peter came from God. The Pope received his authority from Christ, and delegated it to the bishops (power of order distinguished from the power of jurisdiction). This is the essence of Ultramontanist ecclesiology.

Despite the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, Conciliarism survived and formed the basis of Febronianism, Gallicanism and Josephinism. The schism of Henry VIII fell into the same pattern as the French Church in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the only difference being that France did not break as totally as did England. France simply kept Rome at arm’s length, but the theory was the same: the King was the boss in his own country, and the Bishop in his diocese.

Some RC apologists affirm that Conciliarism is dead since the Ultramontanists got their own back and Old Catholics are too few to matter. It’s a point of view, but there were serious concilarist elements at Vatican II. Lumen Gentium removes emphasis from the Papacy to an extent in favour of the College of Bishops. The Eastern Orthodox are completely concilarist in their ecclesiology and attach much less importance to a “living magisterium” than to Tradition. However, they had no historical connection with the above-mentioned events of western church history. Conciliarism and anti-Ultramontanism are characteristic of Old Catholics and Anglicanism.

It is ironical that Roman Catholic traditionalists use the word “conciliar” in a derogatory way to judge Vatican II and its wake as opposed to Tradition. Anglican Catholics and Old Catholics share Conciliarism as an essential characteristic of our ecclesiology and fidelity to Catholic Tradition through the living communion of the Bishops and all the faithful, both clerical and lay. This vision of ecclesiology has all kinds of consequences, some of which have been happily adopted in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, notably the participation of the laity in church governance and de-emphasis of clericalism.

The Anglican Catholic Church, as most other Churches of Anglican tradition, attach great importance to the Synod as the governing body of the Diocese and the Province. This Synod is made up of a house of bishops (at provincial level, or the Bishop at diocesan level), clergy and lay delegates elected by their parishes.

Over and above considerations of liturgies and cultural aspects, Conciliarism is the most distinctive part of our Anglican heritage and tradition.

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17 Responses to Conciliarism

  1. Thank you for this article Father. It’s been a while since I have checked in on you. Conciliarism sounds almost perfect but……………….. we have seen how it can be corrupted by looking at the history of the Anglican Communion since the 1930’s.

    Until the decline and fall of the British Empire the AC was held in check by King/Queen and Parliament which worked in concert to protect and defend the church to a greater or lesser degree. Of course most people, even if not truly devout supported what the church said and taught. Once the dam had broken all Hell came forth and hence what we see is conciliarism gone wild and anything goes for the most part. (TEC conciliarism is more based on the American political scheme).

    How has the Orthodox East manage to maintain itself amide all the onslaught of modernism, progressivism and corruption as a Conciliar Church body? Not that it is perfect but even in its worse moments it outshines the west be it Anglican or Roman Catholic. How do they do it? They say it’s because the Orthodox Church is the only Church still guided by the Holy Spirit. May be so.

    Otherwise what say you Father Anthony?

    • Of course anything is corruptible. I agree with you that Orthodoxy is still true to itself, but yet so are all other Churches, and all succumb to one extent or another to corruption and sin. We are what we are in our original Christian traditions. If one changes from one church to another, we cannot expect to be allowed to continue – but rather stop, revert to our spiritual infancy, and then start all over again. Rupture. It is only normal.

      The alternative to conciliarism is ultramontanism. Conciliarism came about because of the Papal corruption at the time. So no system of ecclesiology is immune from corruption, any more than atheism. It is because we are human.

      There is good in everything. That’s what I say.

      • archi says:

        Can’t we find a middle ground between the extremes of conciliarism and ultramontanism? After all, the early “undivided” Church was able to do just that, even if it wasn’t written down: at the same time acknowledging the see of Rome as the “Apostolic See”, a title which, as far as I know, it didn’t give to other sees (even the “petrinian” sees of Antioch and Alexandria); and holding councils regularly, both local and oecumenical, with ample canonical authority.

        Ultramontanist papacy, where the Pope ends up beign an absolute monarch, even able to outlaw what his predecessors have set in the law, where his voice is considered as the only legitimate voice in the Church, where he becomes the only authority in the Church, naming bishops who become mere local governors, executing the Pope’s will, is definitely a caricature. Even in the medieval Church, where (if I remember well) the canons demanded that local councils be regularly held, it is hard to find the justification of such a one-sided ecclesiology. And as others have said, the liturgical (and other) changes of Vatican II have directly been made possible by this ecclesiology.

        On the other hand, if conciliarity alone was the rule, the risk is having the Church divide itself with no central authority to check. After all, I think one council (can’t remember which one) decreed that acceptance by the Pope was needed to make a council legitimate, so pure conciliarism rules itself out. Otherwise, how can one claim the legitimacy of say, Chalcedon, versus the Robber Council of Ephesus? Being small and autonomous may have advantages, and be needed in some cases, but still a common oecumenical ground needs to be found.

        The truth remains to be found somewhere in between.

      • In medio stat virtus.

        Anglicans (continuing and some Canterbury ones too) have become wary about Rome, considering the way Anglicanorum Coetibus was implemented. It would have cost nothing for Pope Benedict XVI to echo the words of Cardinal Kasper and say that the Ordinariates were for people leaving the Anglican Communion with a certain provision for receiving individuals also from the Continuing Churches, the TAC in particular. I have already been into this subject, and the fault is on all sides and on no one side. The devil was in the details – and now there is a Pope with different ideas since the abdication of Benedict XVI.

        The fact remains that if Rome is a little more “concilar” in theory, it remains Ultramontanist in practice. There can be dialogue between separated Churches and Rome, but the TAC’s request for some form of “uniate status” was an error. That was not the way to balance Ultramontanist and Concilarist ecclesiology. Experience proved it. Those who went over were prepared for some kind of “purification process” before becoming “real Catholics”, even though they would be granted the use of the Book of Divine Worship. However, I have no desire of rekindling controversy that largely fell silent in early 2012, more than a year ago.

        The ideal would be a balance between the two ecclesiologies, which was the greatest aspiration of the Fathers of Vatican II, but this balance is not yet there. Roman Catholicism continues with Ultramontanist ecclesiology, the proof being Anglicanorum Coetibus. The message is clearly that dialogue is possible in terms of conciliarist ecclesiology, but a uniate movement calls upon ecclesiology à la Pio Nono and acceptance of Ultramontanist ecclesiology.

        An excess of Conciliar theology gives rise to the problems in Anglicanism (liberalism, relativism, etc.) and problems like Phyletism in Orthodoxy. The early Councils (eg. Chalcedon) recognised a special authority in the person of the Pope. We Anglicans have Metropolitan Archbishops and the Orthodox have Patriarchs. There is no doubt that Christ conferred authority on St Peter. Many of us Anglicans name the Pope in the Canon of the Mass, since the Papacy – properly understood – is a symbol of the unity of the Church. The trouble is that we Anglicans are in the minority, like the Old Catholics, and any number of apologist zealots would take a whole arm if we concede half a finger!

        So these things will really have to be discussed in ecumenical dialogues, and Rome will have to be seen to follow its own Conciliar (Vatican II) teachings by recognising the existence of the one Catholic Church as already subsisting in its partners in the ecumenical dialogue. There is a long way to go so that the balance can be restored.

      • Michael Frost says:

        In regard to Anglicanism and Conciliarism, I think to the later Non-jurors and their communications with the East. Is fascinating how they focused on the the See of Jerusalem as their solution to issues of authority and didn’t apparently realize how their desire would be viewed by the other Sees, who each had “primacy” over the lowly city. Yet it is fascinating how God’s Holy City was allowed to take a back seat to secular cities of power, wealth, and majesty like Rome and Constantinople, none of which has any real religious connection to Israel, the life of Christ, or the Church of the Apostles as shown in Acts. The sad accidents of history?

    • Ad Orientem says:

      Don’t assume everything is all roses on our side of the Bosporos. We have our share of problems, trust me. Though none come close to the nuclear meltdown in the Anglican Communion. Generally our problems and scandals tend to be more pedestrian in nature… greed, theft, power politics, phyletism etc. Heresy just isn’t normally a problem on any kind of large scale like we have seen in some other communions including the Roman.

      I think there are two important contributing factors to our institutional conservatism. First, with rare exceptions the vast majority of our bishops are monastics. Not just celibate priests, i.e. bachelors. They have been formed spiritually in an environment that has always been uber-conservative and suspicious of anything even hinting at change.

      And secondly there is a very different dynamic in the relationship between bishops and laity in Orthodoxy. On the one hand clericalism is alive and well in much of the Orthodox world. But that clericalism is contingent on the continued confidence of the people in the priest and bishops. This is a church that has seen violent schisms over calendars! And there are more than a few records of bad bishops being run out of town by angry peasants with pitchforks and torches. Not all of the Patriarchs of Constantinople who were drowned in the harbor were thrown in by the Turks. Quite a few were thrown in by their own laity and clergy.

  2. Dale says:

    It is interesting to note that Doellinger did go out of communion with the continental Old Catholics at one point, in protest to their beginning of liturgical revisions (which resulted in the Missal of the Germans and Swiss deviating from the Old Latin Mass, which continued to be preserved, until recently amongst both the Dutch as well as the Poles [what is interesting is the the 19th century German and Swiss liturgies of that period are rather embarrassing and very sentimental in a rather Victorian manner]), and other, to us today, minor changes in the old tradition; his fear was that liturgical revision would eventually result in theological revisions and that Conciliarism could only be preserved if there was a liturgical standard that reflected old Catholic faith and practice.

    I remember a seminary professor of mine positing that the liturgical changes of Vatican II were simply liturgy catching up with the theological changes of Vatican !. That the new theology of the first council needed to be reflected liturgically; only that it is easier to make theological changes because most people are uninterested in such issues, and that liturgical change needs more manipulation so as to not upset too many.

    Following the above thoughts, perhaps if England had remained loyal to the Sarum Mass in the vernacular, the theological revolution may have been avoided.

    • perhaps if England had remained loyal to the Sarum Mass in the vernacular, the theological revolution may have been avoided

      Perhaps, to a point. I too see an essential unity between the post-Vatican II movement and Vatican I that made it possible for a Pope to do what he pleased. However, in the 1970’s, the Dominicans gave up their rite, and only a few young priests have done the research to get it back. The Parisian, Lyons and Rouen rites are gone. Even the traditionalists are not interested in them.

      Any church that gets too big and institutionalised becomes corrupt in time. Churches can go very wrong with democracy like the Anglicans and Old Catholics, but it is preferable to the filth of men like Boniface VIII and Alexander VI, Torquemada and Bernd Gui among others.

      • Dale says:

        Too true, too true.

        Personally, I would rather be an ignored eccentric in the English Church pottering around in a small parish and saying Mass in the old manner from the Missal, than to be a Roman priest removed and my reputation ruined for the sin as grievous as refusing communion in the hand (this actually happened to Fr James Wilson of St Andrew’s, Independence, KS, who upon his death was refused burial in the Catholic cemetery).

      • archi says:

        “The Parisian, Lyons and Rouen rites are gone. Even the traditionalists are not interested in them.”

        Just for the sake of information, I know the Lyons rite is celebrated weekly at one church in Lyon. This marks probably the interest of one priest, and probably rules out the full-blown solemn rite, but it is there (I’ve only read this bit of information, never been there so I don’t know how it looks like).

        Also, the Saint Eugene parish in Paris seems to integrate quite a lot of Parisian customs in its 1962 liturgies. So you definitely find some traditionalists (even though a minority) interested in those rites.

        On the other hand, you’re most probably right for the Rouen rite, but since, as far as I’ve understood, it’s (almost) the same as the Sarum rite, it ends up to you (and a few other Anglicans) keeping the flame alive!

      • Liturgia is a lovely site run by those who go to St Eugène and are interested in liturgy and church music. Another valuable site is Introibo ad altare Dei, but it mainly concerns the Roman rite. Most of those with anything like our “English” interest in the liturgy are not of the Society of Pius X tendency, for which the main interest is politics.

        The Lyons rite is celebrated at St Georges in Lyon, and this is relatively new. This is most praiseworthy.

        The last embers I saw of the Bayeux and Rouen usages were at the parish of Le Chamblac with Fr Montgomery-Wright. I live in Normandy and know of no traditionalist churches doing anything other than the standard Roman rite. Fr Montgomery also used the Roman rite, but with Norman “usages”, doing a kind of “Percy Dearmer”. He was a former Anglican and knew all the tricks.

        The liturgy has become very impoverished. It is no more difficult for people to become accustomed to local uses than to the 1962 Roman liturgy.

      • Dale says:

        I have always had a certain fondness for the rite Lyon, since it alone, please anyone correct me if I am wrong, it continued to preserve the rite con-celebration in the Western liturgy.

  3. Michael Frost says:

    When discussing ecclesiology and history we have to step back carefully and try to do two things. First, really study the history in the least biased manner possible. Second, recognize that the world has radically changed since then. Unfortunately, we all carry too much bias with us when we look at history. And we fail to account for the changes that have intervened.

    I think we all too often forget how much variability there was in the Church from the age of the apostles to the 1st Ecumenical Council. This wasn’t a halcyon era of easy bliss and joyful harmony. It was a disputatious era, one of serious challenges to revealled Truth. An age of heresy after heresy. Jewish influences, Marcion, Sabellianism/Modalism, Montanus, Gnosticism, Arianism, etc. The early Church had serious difficulty agreeing on a date of Pascha, something that endures to our age. And I think we fail to account for the impact the periodic waves of repression and martyrdom had on the early Church as well as its fight for survival against Jews, pagans, Rome, and Manicheans. These early Christians knew they had to live out their lives in a hostile world and work under the Holy Ghost to preserve their Church in ways we can’t imagine.

    And we no longer live in a world of Empire and Emperor. Either one that was hostile and wanting to destroy the Church, neutral and wanting to use or dominate the Church, or favorable and inclined to want the Church to bring peace and harmony to its realm. It was only under Empire and Emperor that “Ecumenical Councils” were called; I don’t believe any Bishops of Rome attended any of the historic Ecumenical Councils.

    And should we remain alert to and fearful of all clerics who worry to much about authority and their place or role in it? They forget that their true place is service? And that the first shall be last? The sins of pride, greed, and envy seem to greatly afflict religious leaders? And power corrupts?

    I suspect the only place to start is to ask the Holy Ghost to open our eyes, minds, and hearts to God’s intention in Acts 15. To see how James, Paul, Peter, et al lived out true authority and unity in God’s Church. And for us and our Churches to remember to live, teach & preach the true Gospel and rightly administer the sacraments.

  4. William Tighe says:

    “Rome will have to be seen to follow its own Conciliar (Vatican II) teachings by recognising the existence of the one Catholic Church as already subsisting in its partners in the ecumenical dialogue.”


    Where is such a notion taught in any document of Vatican II, or post Vatican II documents? Inquiring minds wish to learn. As to the latter, it is ruled out by both Dominus Iesus (2000):

    and “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” (2007):

    I might be misunderstanding the drift of your comment, but it seems to me that you are asking the Roman Catholic Church to adopt an Anglican ecclesiology, even if in the name of Vatican II, and I see no reason for it to do that, and every reason for it not to do so.

    • Plainly, by the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the RC Church was ultramontanist in practice. What you are saying is that the Vatican II Fathers went too far, and Paul VI stepped in with the Nota praevia and John Paul II and Benedict XVI with various other documents to beef up the authority of the Pope. So in that sense you are right.

      I wouldn’t ask the RC Church to adopt Anglican ecclesiology (though they don’t seem to mind Küng and Kasper doing so with a progressive twist), but rather to continue to serve its own faithful who were born into RC families. I am thankful that there are Anglican communities that never had anything to do with the Ordinariate movement, and we can just go on as if nothing had ever happened.

      O tempora o mores!

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